How Has the Web Evolved?

Here’s a pocket history of the web, according to many people. In the early days, the web was just pages of information linked to each other. Then along came web crawlers that helped you find what you wanted among all that information. Some time around 2003 or maybe 2004, the social web really kicked into gear, and thereafter the web’s users began to connect with each other more and more often. Hence Web 2.0, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m not strawmanning here. This is the dominant history of the web as seen, for example, in this Wikipedia entry on the ‘Social Web.’

But it’s never felt quite right to me.

-Alexis Madrigal, Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong

Madrigal’s summation is definitely not a strawman. Take the following passage from Paul Adams’ book, Grouped:

The second shift is a major change in the structure of the web. It’s moving away from being built around content, and is being rebuilt around people. This is correlated with a major change in how people spend their time on the web. They’re spending less time interacting with content, and more time communicating with other people.

Is this the case? Was the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter web really just a bunch of “documents linked together”, as Adams claims elsewhere in the book?

Madrigal doesn’t think so, and neither do I.

The Web Was Always Social

I spent most of the 90s as a teenager in rural Washington and my web was highly, highly social. We had instant messenger and chat rooms and ICQ and USENET forums and email. My whole Internet life involved sharing links with local and Internet friends. How was I supposed to believe that somehow Friendster and Facebook created a social web out of what was previously a lonely journey in cyberspace when I knew that this has not been my experience? True, my web social life used tools that ran parallel to, not on, the web, but it existed nonetheless.

Madrigal’s experience parallels my own. It might be more appropriate to speak of a social net rather than a social web, since the social technology of my youth included AIM and ICQ and IRC. The web itself was definitely social, however–in Middle School, I spent a lot of time on fan sites for the video games and TV shows that I was into, and those sites had forums and Java chatrooms. The sites became the common space the site community used, and individual connections could then be followed up through email and ICQ and other chat services with personal accounts.

eGroups–an email list service that was eventually swallowed up by Yahoo!–was another source of social activity for me; it became a sort of forum in my inbox.

Later, I got deeply into EZGroups, a service for quickly making your own forum with a decent discovery mechanism for finding other people’s. Then there was also LiveJournal; which came closest to the modern idea of how social graphs work.

In short, there were a ton of services for connecting with other individuals and groups, and interacting with people on those services was what I did with the vast majority of my time online in those days. And I don’t think Madrigal or my experiences are unusual in this regard.

The Web Was Always Viral

Before “going viral” was the phrase we used to describe when a piece of content suddenly went from a few dozen views to a few thousand, or tens or hundreds of thousands, or millions of views, the phenomena existed. One example that stands out in my mind from when I was in High School (over ten years ago) is “Irrational Exuberance (Yatta)“.

Yatta was part of a class of videos and animations that everyone suddenly knew about. Hanging out at a friend’s house, one-on-one or in groups, eventually ended up having a set amount of time where we all gathered around a computer screen and watched the videos we’d all found that everyone just had to be sure to see too.

This was before YouTube of course. The sources were big flash portals like Newgrounds and Albino Blacksheep. Sometimes they were just some random, small website. But there was never any shortage of stuff to sell on our pre-Facebook social networks, or in our old fashioned in person ones for that matter!

We Have Increased What We Can Measure

One thing that Madrigal and Adams agree on is that modern social networks have vastly increased our ability to measure what people are doing online. Here’s Madrigal:

Second, the social sites that arrived in the 2000s did not create the social web, but they did structure it. This is really, really significant. In large part, they made sharing on the Internet an act of publishing (!), with all the attendant changes that come with that switch. Publishing social interactions makes them more visible, searchable, and adds a lot of metadata to your simple link or photo post. There are some great things about this, but social networks also give a novel, permanent identity to your online persona. Your taste can be monetized, by you or (much more likely) the service itself.

And Adams, in Grouped:

The third shift is that for the first time, we can accurately map and measure social interaction. Many of our theories can now be quantitatively tested. This is incredibly exciting for researchers, but it will also transform how we think about marketing and advertising. Many things that were previously hard to measure, for example, word of mouth marketing, can now be analyzed and understood. We can now start to measure how people really influence other people, and it will change how we do business.

It is certainly true that Twitter and Facebook have increased the measurability of certain activities. As someone in the digital advertising industry, and someone with a strong interest in the social sciences, this is certainly and exciting shift to me. And certainly, the information being generated will inform the decisions made by these services, as well as make it more possible to sustain such services financially–so in that regard, measurability will have an impact on user experience.

But measurability isn’t really all that directly exciting to me as a user of these services. Can we really encompass the big change that’s happened since the onset of the modern social web under the heading of what we’re able to quantify?

Common Spaces

As you may have guessed, I don’t think the measurability really covers it. And I don’t think Madrigal’s characterization of the transition as one to publishing really does the trick, either–it is just as much “publishing” to write in a publicly viewable forum as it is to post a status on Facebook.

One change that has happened rather rapidly is the emergence of gigantic, global common spaces. It may be that many of the basic activities people do on Twitter and Facebook–sharing links, having conversations one on one or in groups, sharing pictures–are not new, but what is new is that it is being done in a space shared by a ridiculously large percentage of the connected world.

Twitter activity is public by default, and anything you say on it can pass into a gigantic number of people’s timelines in an instant if it is carried far enough on a wave of retweets. Conversely, your circle of 15 friends you follow on Twitter who all live near you in DC may seem as insular as any old fashioned forum or email list, but the fact of the matter is that tweets from people anywhere in the world can enter your timeline at any point when any of those 15 friends retweet them.

Facebook is ostensibly more private than Twitter, but in practice content can travel just as far and wide–farther and wider, in fact, as its service reaches a billion users, almost half of the connected world.

We are only beginning to understand what it is like to live with these enormous online common spaces. Serendipity, which some people seemed to think was going to be killed by algorithms and automation, is a larger force than ever. This includes the case where you’re having a conversation with one person on Twitter and someone who follows you both jumps in because they find it interesting, or entertaining. It also includes the case where you are discovered and end up with a job.

Somewhat more controversially, it may even include the case where one man’s Facebook group leads to the overthrow of a 30 year old regime.

Always Connected

I would be derelict if I didn’t mention the obvious impact that mobile devices are having on the evolution of the web. From a pure input perspective, we can now record anything from anywhere and share it immediately. It is even possible to stream live video from a mobile device–so that anything can be covered in near real-time.

From a usage perspective, it’s like being able to carry around your friends in your pocket, all the time. When I was coming up to New York every other week for work, it was a comfort to be able to have conversations with my friends and see what they were saying on Twitter and Facebook. Especially on those nights when I didn’t have anyone to meet up with for dinner, and had to strike out on my own.

Much has been said about how mobile is revolutionizing our lives, and I don’t have too much to add to that here. But we can’t talk about the web without thinking about how its evolution is tied inextricably to the increasing mobility of our connected devices.

The Maturing Ecosystem

One big thing that has happened since I started using the web is that the ecosystem of social, content, and commercial services has matured significantly. What was there before our big common spaces have adapted to the existence of those spaces. As an example, I can’t help but see Instapundit as a blog that is frozen in a very particular time in the web’s evolution–today, if the vast majority of your updates are a few words and a link, it makes much more sense to publish them on Twitter than to have a full-fledged blog.

Of course, Instapundit became popular long before Twitter existed, and has no reason to change since his audience has stuck with him. But I have to think that if Glenn Reynolds had started it 10 years later, it would have been on Twitter.

Meanwhile, more mainstream publications have migrated completely online, and more publications that were born on the web have become mainstream. The conversation about whether amateur bloggers are going to replace professional publications has basically died out, as an ecosystem which includes both has become quite robust. Twitter and Facebook act a glue that brings content and people together on a scale unprecedented in the web’s history.

In tech circles we love to talk about what is dead, and what new thing is replacing something that has already grown old in the short timescale of modern technology. But the fact of the matter is that blogs did not kill professional content, and Twitter did not kill blogs. As our connected services evolve, specific companies may fall but it’s unlikely that any particular category of thing is going to truly die. What changes is their role, as the ecosystem absorbs the new tools, new conventions emerge for the old tools, and people simply get a better idea of just what any of this is good for.

The Web Has Evolved

The web, and the Internet more broadly, have undeniably changed in my lifetime. The story of that change, however, is often far more subtle than simply “it has become social” or “viral” or even “mobile”. People are still talking to one another and sharing things online; that has not changed. What has changed is how we’re going about it.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.

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